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How do war, poverty and gender affect a child’s education?

In 2000, the United Nations set a goal that by 2015 every child in every nation should be able to obtain free basic education — believing literacy can help reduce poverty and promote economic development. At the time, over 100 million children had never stepped foot in a classroom. And although today that number has almost been halved, 59 million children are still out of school — and that number is now rising.

While the UN has been tracking the numbers — meeting this past weekend to take stock — PBS has been following seven kids in seven countries over the last 12 years to reveal the deeply human stories behind the reports. Most of the students live in countries facing profound challenges — where war, abject poverty, or just being a girl often stand between a child and this simple dream.

In 2003, Kenya abolished primary school fees in an effort to increase enrollment. And, according to the president of Kenya, it worked — gross enrollment in primary schools rose by 116 percent. That year, we began following 10-year-old Joab Onyando who was able to attend school for the first time. But the country wasn’t prepared for the huge influx of kids and didn’t have the infrastructure in place to provide for them. Teachers, books and desks were all in short supply. Joab found himself in a class of 74 students with only one teacher.

In India today, nearly 100 percent of children start primary school. But only some of these kids, especially girls in rural areas, are learning the basics. Neeraj Gujar’s family did not believe her schooling was worthwhile, so work within the home remained a priority. Neeraj was expected to graze the cows and collect water from the well during the day and study in a village night school. When the night school closed, her opportunity for learning ended with it.

Benin, too, has significantly increased enrollment of children in primary school, especially for girls, and fewer children are dropping out — at least in the early years. The gender gap widens as the students get into the higher grades, with girls in remote regions more likely to drop out. For Nanavi, the transition from primary to middle school — and from girl to young woman — spelled the end of her education.

New goals agreed to this past weekend give developing nations another 15 years to achieve the initial goal of universal education for all. Based on lessons learned over these past 15 years, a new requirement has been added: that the education be inclusive and equitable.

Other stories in our series so far include Brazil and Japan.

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